Drug abuse and addiction are serious problems, but they don’t generally occur on their own. Mental illness is often associated with drug addiction, either as a precipitating factor or a side effect of consistent drug use. Drugs and alcohol also pose physical threats to your body, some obvious and others not so.
One of the biggest overarching physical issues caused by drug abuse is the breakdown of the immune system. The irony here is that many addicts start out innocently taking medicine that is meant to heal their physical ailments. But chemical intervention in the body, for any reason, causes disruption of the natural systems, including the natural ability to protect one’s self against disease. You may notice people who abuse drugs are sick more often or pick up every little infection going around.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the biggest “infection” you can get, and it precipitates a complete shutdown of your immune system. By abusing drugs, you make yourself more vulnerable to getting AIDS, both by breaking down your natural defenses against disease and by putting yourself in risky situations.
HIV and AIDS
The human body is unable to fight off the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which means that once you contract it, HIV will live in your body forever. While there is no cure for HIV, the precursor to AIDS, treatments are available to control the virus and the destruction it causes.
HIV attacks the immune system, killing T-cells. Once enough of your T-cells are destroyed, your body no longer has the ability to defend itself against infections and disease. When you reach a dangerously low T-cell count, you are considered to have AIDS.
People with AIDS require ongoing medical treatment to live. Without treatment, the average patient with AIDS can live about three years, as long as they don’t contract an opportunistic disease, such as pneumonia or salmonella, in which case the survival rate drops to one year.
Opportunistic diseases are ones that a healthy immune system usually fights off without displaying any symptoms. However, when the immune system is compromised, like with HIV, these diseases take the opportunity to invade and become seriously threatening. This is why you usually only hear of infants and old people dying of pneumonia or salmonella. They have the weakest immune systems; other people are not as threatened by these diseases.
To get sick with HIV, you have to be exposed to it directly. HIV is transmitted through body fluids. Blood or other fluids from a person who has HIV, even if they are not showing any symptoms, would have to come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue like in a cut or open wound to transmit the disease.
The primary ways HIV is transmitted between people is through sexual intercourse or sharing needles. HIV cannot survive for very long outside of the body and does not reproduce, so the only way to get HIV is to come in direct contact with someone who has it.
Common Links Between HIV/AIDS and Drugs
The most obvious link between AIDS and drug abuse is the use of intravenous drugs. Shooting heroin or injecting other drugs requires the needle to pierce the skin. If someone who is carrying HIV uses a needle and then passes it to another person, it could contain a tiny amount of blood with HIV in it. When the second person pushes that needle through their skin, that infected drop of blood is going in, too.
Drug use is also linked with an increase in risky behaviors:
- While under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, people may make poor choices.
- Their inhibitions are decreased by the drugs.
- They are more likely to take risks with their health or their life.
One unsafe choice a drug addict can make is with sexual partners. The more partners a person has, the more likely he or she is to come in contact with HIV. By engaging in sexual activities with other drug addicts who also have multiple sex partners, you increase your risk exponentially.
Another sexual risk that occurs among drug users is transactional sex — trading sex for drugs. This behavior is likely a product of the addiction taking control and pushing users to desperate measures for securing their next high. In these cases, the addict is going to be even less discriminating about choosing a sex partner and more likely to ignore any hazardous warning signs.
AIDS and Drug Abuse Statistics
The overall prevalence of HIV in any population affects the likelihood of coming in contact with it. There are 35 million people living with HIV around the world, with the greatest concentrations in poor countries in Africa. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), only 1.2 million people in the U.S. were living with HIV at the end of 2012. The more serious part of that statistic is that roughly 12% of those people had not been diagnosed yet.
People who do not know they are infected with HIV have a greater risk of transmitting the disease. The infection is living in their bodies and progressing unchecked. They are not taking necessary precautions to avoid spreading the disease, and they don’t realize their immune system is compromised, making them more vulnerable to other diseases.
While a majority of HIV is spread through sexual contact, injection drug users are the next most vulnerable group. In the U.S. in 2013, more than 3,000 new cases of HIV from injected drug use were reported. All drug users have a higher risk of HIV than the rest of the population because of their propensity for risk-taking behaviors. The injection of drugs, however, has a direct correlation with the disease.
How to Protect Yourself from AIDS and Injected AIDS
Although there is no cure for AIDS, we have a much better understanding of how it is transmitted than we did back in the 1980s when the disease was first discovered in the U.S. The virus is carried in certain body fluids — blood, semen, breast milk, and fluids found in the rectum and vagina — therefore, the two primary means of spreading the disease are injected drugs and sexual activities. There are some precautions you can take to limit your exposure to and reduce the risk of getting AIDS:
- Limit the number of sexual partners you have. This is just a good way to take advantage of the law of averages. Each time you take on a new partner, there is a chance that person could be carrying HIV. The more times you take that chance, the more likely you are to end up coming in contact with HIV.
- Never share a needle with anyone for any reason. The safest thing to do would be avoid taking drugs. But the direct risk of HIV is with the needle. Never inject yourself with a needle someone else has used before. This rule applies to any type of injection or any instrument that breaks through the skin, like a pin prick for testing blood sugar or an epinephrine shot for bee sting allergies.
- Use condoms during all sexual activities. A condom should be used to create a barrier between body fluids and mucous membranes. Mucous membranes exist inside the mouth, vagina and rectum, among other places. Exposing these areas to someone else’s body fluids is an HIV risk.
- Avoid anal sex, which carries the highest risk of HIV transmission. Oral and vaginal sex are less likely to result in HIV transmission than anal sex. Avoiding high-risk sexual behaviors like this will provide added protection from HIV.
- Get tested for sexually transmitted diseases at least once a year. If you are sexually active, you should be tested regularly and treated for any sexually transmitted diseases you encounter. Harboring infections, especially in the genital region, will put unnecessary strain on your immune system and may also provide open sores for HIV to get into.
- If you may have been exposed to HIV, see your doctor immediately. Treatment is available for HIV exposure, and when administered quickly enough it might kill the virus before it has a chance to infect you.
With proper precautions, you can avoid getting HIV. If you are exposed to HIV, there are medications that can help manage the infection so it doesn’t progress to AIDS. Medical research since the 1980s has reversed the AIDS epidemic. By 2005, the number of people living with HIV worldwide had started declining, but we are still far from a vaccine or cure.
Drug Abuse and Disease
Taking precautions against getting HIV is important, but HIV is not the only disease associated with drug abuse. Drug addicts are more likely than the average population to contract other infectious diseases, and since addicts can be a tightly knit group who share intimately, the spread of those diseases is a real concern.
The following drugs are most strongly connected to infectious disease:
The skin provides an important barrier that protects the body against foreign substances. Once you poke a needle through the skin, you expose yourself to greater risk of disease. In addition to potentially introducing HIV, a needle can carry other viruses and bacteria.
In addition to HIV, hepatitis is another disease likely to be shared among injected drug users. Hepatitis is a virus that ultimately attacks the liver. The five strains of hepatitis are identified by letters. B and C are the ones most likely to be contracted from needles for injected drugs or tattoos.
Bacterial infections can also be transmitted by dirty needles. One of the more serious ones, endocarditis, inflames the lining of the heart. A lot of micro-organisms can fit on the end of a needle. By poking it through your skin, you are potentially opening up your bloodstream to unfriendly invaders. Once in your blood, infections can travel around to every organ of your body.
Putting drugs in your body, via any delivery system, can be dangerous. Even if you don’t inject drugs, they can still increase your risk of serious diseases. AIDS and methamphetamine are often linked because of the sexual risks involved. Methamphetamine is known to increase the libido and decrease inhibitions, making a perfect recipe for contracting HIV.
AIDS and heroin are mostly linked due to the injecting aspect of the drug. However, people who snort heroin are not safe from HIV or other serious diseases. Heroin is well known for increasing risk-taking behaviors, and unprotected sexual activities are even more likely to result in HIV. There is even a strong connection between AIDS and steroids because they are often injected and sharing needles among users is common.
AIDS and cocaine are also linked through the sharing of drug paraphernalia and the increased likelihood of engaging in risky behavior. When you use cocaine, your judgment can become clouded and you may do things you wouldn’t do otherwise.
Problems Associated with Drug Abuse
Addiction is the disease most commonly associated with drug abuse, but there are others. Many people don’t even realize addiction is a disease, but it has been classified that way since the mid-20th century. Before that, addiction was considered a personality defect of immorality and lack of control. We know now that addicts are not flawed people, they are people with a medical condition.
By looking at addiction as a disease, we understand it is a condition that can be altered with medical intervention:
- Like many other diseases, addiction can be treated, and in some cases prevented.
- Similar to chronic diseases, addiction tends to co-exist with other diseases.
- Sometimes addiction is the precursor to those diseases and sometimes the other diseases make a person pre-disposed to developing an addiction.
Even in the absence of any pre-existing condition, drug abuse leads to addiction and can be complicated by other diseases. The best way to keep this scenario from playing out is to end the drug abuse as soon as possible. By treating drug addiction, we can empower the body’s natural defenses to fight off additional diseases and contain any existing ones.
If you or someone you love is at risk of contracting HIV because of injected drug use, 12 Keys can help. Contact us today to learn about the steps you can take to end drug abuse and reduce the risk of AIDS. Addiction is a serious disease that can be at the root of many other health problems. By treating the addiction, we can make your whole life outlook healthier.
If you have already been exposed to HIV or hepatitis through injected drug use or other risky behaviors, we can help. At 12 Keys we are experienced in treating addiction with co-existing disease conditions. We can give you the medical attention you need to manage your illness while providing an individualized program to deal with your addiction. No situation is too complicated for us at 12 Keys.
Contact us today to talk with a compassionate 12 Keys representative who can answer all of your questions about addiction recovery. We offer all of the detox, counseling, and rehabilitation services needed to successfully break your addiction. Our comfortable environment and supportive services will ease your transition into a healthy, happy, drug-free life.